Malaysia, Australia sign asylum seeker swap deal

KUALA LUMPUR, July 25, 2011 (AFP) - Malaysia and Australia on Monday signed a controversial deal to send hundreds of boatpeople to the Southeast Asian nation, despite heavy criticism from rights groups.

Under the agreement inked in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia will take 800 asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat, in return for Australia accepting 4,000 processed refugees for resettlement.

As Malaysia's Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen signed the pact, a small group of activists held a protest outside the hotel venue to denounce the transfer agreement.

AFP - Malaysia's home affairs minister Hishammuddin Hussein (L) and Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen shake hands while exchanging signed in Kuala Lumpur on July 25, 2011

One placard held by one of about a dozen protesters said: "Refugees are not political football, treat them with respect and dignity."

The agreement, part of Canberra's push to develop a regional solution to people smuggling, is designed to deter boatpeople from making the dangerous sea journey to Australia.

But the plan has sparked concern because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, nor has it ratified the UN Convention against Torture.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has not approved the swap proposal.

Amnesty International has said that asylum seekers sent to Malaysia could face lengthy waits to determine their status, as well as inhumane detention conditions, and even torture in the form of caning.

In Australia, about 200 demonstrators marched to an Australian immigration detention centre on Sunday to protest the deal with Malaysia.

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